Rainbow Jell-O: Still jiggly after all these years?

Illustration for article titled Rainbow Jell-O: Still jiggly after all these years?
Photo: Nick Leggin, Graphic: Karl Gustafson

Welcome to Jiggle All The Way, The Takeout’s holiday celebration of Jell-O, gelatin, and all things wiggly. We’ll be releasing new feature stories and original holiday recipes every day this week, and each of them will have a little bit of wobble.


Seven-layer rainbow Jell-O was a first-call “dish to pass” when I was a kid. My mom broke it out frequently for scout banquets, church picnics, and potlucks. It took her what at the time seemed like weeks to assemble, and I can remember scoldings for touching the Jell-O while the layers had not yet congealed in the fridge. The end result was a springy, saccharine prism that was gobbled up entirely by whatever crowd was fortunate to receive it.

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It’s now been three presidential administrations since I’ve seen or tasted this particular style of Jell-O. And my kids have never had it. Their only exposure to Jell-O has been the food alternatives after tonsil removal or during flu season. It’s not part of our normal dessert rotation. I feel like I have done them a great disservice.

My two oldest—8 and 6, respectively—are now in activities that will necessitate potlucks (ignoring this COVID period), and much of what I’ve seen brought to these events have been store-bought cookies or Rice Krispies treats. These are fine offerings, but I feel like we can kick things up a notch as we hopefully exit this pandemic. My nostalgia has me wondering whether seven-layer rainbow Jell-O would be a welcomed potluck dessert in the 2020s.

A key ceremony of parenthood is your kids’ immediate rejection of anything you liked as a kid. However, with something as novel as rainbow Jell-O, I’d hope that this would be a colorful slam dunk. My kids would have to like this, right?

Given our abundance of time to spend in the kitchen on weekends, I decided to whip up a batch for my family to see if they would accept it, and to judge whether it’s worth the effort to prepare this recipe again. I would stay true to the methods my mom used: seven distinct Jell-O flavors (grape, blue raspberry, lime, lemon, orange, cherry, and black cherry) from purple to red. It’s probably embellishment to call it a recipe, because it’s really just making Jell-O over and over again.

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When I introduced the concept to the kids, there was certainly excitement, primarily driven by my first-grade daughter. However, when I called this a rainbow Jell-O and she discovered there was no indigo represented, she quickly deducted points from its overall score due to this inaccuracy. For the days leading up to the preparation, she asked daily if and when we’d make it. We settled on Thanksgiving weekend, an open window in a calendar week of gorging.

The preparation started around 6:45 a.m., budgeting ample time for every layer to be mixed, cooled, and ready for a post-dinner dessert serving. For six of the layers I followed the box’s instructions, each of which involved pouring boiling water into the gelatin and cool water mixture, and creating the sensation of a jolly rancher steam bath. Aside from a handful of air bubbles (stirring with a spoon instead of a whisk helps prevent the bubbles), the layers stayed smooth and fingerprint-free. For the lemon yellow, which tends to get lost amidst the bolder, darker layers, I incorporated Cool Whip to offer a visual separation from “RO” and, uh, “G-BIV.” You could accomplish the same sensation with condensed milk or sour cream, but it’s not necessary to add it at all. As Marco Pierre White may say: it’s your choice.

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I used two separate Pyrex baking containers for the molds, as opposed to one 9x13 baking dish. This was due to space constraints with significant real estate in the fridge being taken by Thanksgiving leftovers. I would have thought that would expedite the process, but it really didn’t. It still took close to 90 minutes for each layer to set, which I attribute to the children’s eagerness to peek at the progress in the fridge throughout the day. With the cooling cycles it took almost 11 hours for all the layers to fully settle.

By 6 p.m., it was ready to serve. Peering down into the baking dish, it was hard to discern all the colors of the rainbow. Looking from the side, there were only slightly discernible color variations. This all changed when I turned the Jell-O slices 90 degrees on their side for plating. The blend of colors sparkled on a white plate. The translucent lemon layer also helped clarify the blue shades from the reds. I don’t ever remember noticing this as a kid, probably because I was preoccupied with juicing my Jell-O consumed per second ratio.

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Taste wise, it was platonically Jell-O-ey, which is exactly how I remembered it. I know that’s a cop-out, but nothing special happens to the Jell-O to amplify its form or flavor profile. When you could slurp out the individual flavors, they tasted like the individual flavors. When eaten together, they were a pile driver of citric acid and sugar, led by the first flavor that hit your mouth.

One critical question remained: what did the kids think? It was a hit. They couldn’t have enough, in awe of its “crystal-like” appearance. My oldest found it “bumbly and jiggly.” My daughter’s description of “it tastes like medicine” was received as high praise—they have not yet graduated to rotten-tasting medicines. My two-year-old son dispensed with the spoon and just tore into it with both hands like it was fried chicken. To their delight, there was plenty for leftovers (the recipe yields 3.5 quarts of Jell-O). Our kids ate Jell-O for days afterwards, certain to get their essential dyes and colorings well into the week.

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Illustration for article titled Rainbow Jell-O: Still jiggly after all these years?
Photo: Nick Leggin

Conclusions 

The purpose was to see if this would resonate with kids and be a strong offering for future potlucks. The first verdict is a resounding yes. I was expecting this would be the verdict, yet I had doubts until that first bite.

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Is it potluck worthy? I think it depends on your situation. If you’re looking for a convenient dessert, this is not a good choice. The preparation had 40 minutes of work sprinkled over 11 hours, all for 5 minutes of consumption. Store-bought cookies win on speed. Quantity-wise, the .75 gallons of Jell-O is more than enough for a “dish to pass” at a gathering, assuming it’s not sitting in summer heat. If you’re attending a natural foods potluck (do those exist?), stay away as this is heavy on the artificial dyes. When scored on novelty, it’s hard to beat the kids’ excitement for this technicolor treat.

I was happy to finally succeed in having a shared generational joy. Now if only I can convince them that movies made before 1995 can be funny, too.

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Nick Leggin is a technology professional, writer, potato chip enthusiast, and former game show contestant.

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DISCUSSION

Not for the kids, but I used to do Jell-O shots like this. But, instead of generic fruit flavors, I would layer ‘real’ drink ingredients.

So, the gin martini Jell-O shots were a thin layer of olive brine (olive -colored, of course), a thin layer of golden vermouth Jell-O, and a quadruple-layer of gin Jell-O (which turns a translucent smoky blue). The flavors actually stood out.

The tequila sunrise I tried was all of the same ingredients across each color band, was OK, but didn’t turn out as well as the layered ones.

Things were going swimmingly, until I ran afoul of some black vodka ones.  Woof.